Hermon voters Thursday night endorsed a $17.5 million school budget that town councilors had recommended after cutting $100,000 from a school committee-endorsed spending plan. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

Hermon voters Thursday night endorsed a smaller, $17.5 million school budget recommended by a majority of town councilors, but only by two votes.

That vote came after residents at the annual town meeting rejected the school committee’s larger, proposed budget, also by only two votes.

Last month, councilors cut the school committee’s approved budget by $100,000 so the town would not have to raise property taxes. Hermon’s tax rate of $11.99 per $1,000 of assessed valuation is one of the lowest in Greater Bangor.

More than 100 residents attended the three-hour meeting that was characterized by procedural maneuvers as well as accusations that the council cut the school budget out of spite and the school system had enough money in unspent funds to cover the $100,000 difference.

Last year’s town meeting, where voters approved buying a new fire truck, drew fewer than two dozen people, about a third of them firefighters. It lasted less than 30 minutes.

While the meeting was mostly civil, the dispute between the council and the school committee, which has been ongoing for at least a year, was widened by the close votes on the school budget.

All other items passed unanimously and without discussion.

Hermon voters last year approved in a 35-10 vote a $90,000 proposal to have an outside firm test the security of the town’s internet network — something the school committee, which runs the network, said was unwarranted.

Council Chair Steve Thomas told voters Thursday night that the council’s recommendation that the school system cut $90,000 from its IT budget was because that test has not been done. The council also recommended the school committee cut $10,000 from its legal budget because it spent money from that line item to fight the security test, Thomas said.

Legally, the council can tell school committee members to cut the budget by a certain amount but cannot tell them where the cuts should be made, as the council tried to do.

Outgoing Town Councilor Anthony Reynolds pointed out as the meeting began that the council had not approved the warrant as the town charter required, so proceeding with the meeting might be illegal. Although five councilors signed the warrant and it was presented to the voters within the deadline, it should first have been put before the council, he said.

Reynolds ran for school committee rather than the council this year but was not elected Tuesday.

Town meeting moderator Tim Pease, a Bangor lawyer who advises the town on legal matters, ruled that because the warrant was signed by a majority of the council members and met the deadline, Thursday’s town meeting could proceed. The lawyer said that those who disagreed with his decision could take legal action.

Reynold agreed that the meeting should go forward Thursday and not be rescheduled.

Voters arrived thinking there would be separate votes on the school committee’s recommended budget and the one the council endorsed, but that also violated the charter due to misinformation included in the newsletter sent to residents earlier this month, Pease said.

To weigh in separately on those two budgets, a majority of voters agreed to overrule the moderator. Those votes were too close to call from raised hands, so written ballots were required.

Residents on Thursday also agreed to not take a vote on spending $400,000 in pandemic relief funds on a project voters approved last year to build a new track and upgrade athletic fields at Hermon High School.

That sends the measure back to the council, which had not considered it as a whole.

A special town meeting will need to be held at a later date so voters can approve the expense if the council recommends it.